Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Open Minds, Open Hearts: Paddington's London

The last time I wrote a blog was the last time I saw a film at the cinema. That was Interstellar, which I saw with my step-daughter Sophie; this week I went to see Paddington with my other daughter, Isobel. There’s something about cinema-going that piques my interest in a different way to watching a dvd, though most of what I see at the cinema are children’s films. Perhaps it’s the ‘event’ mode of spectatorship, or the physical space of the cinema itself, or perhaps it’s because I don’t watch enough films at home; or perhaps because I see the films with members of my family. The cinema makes me think and respond in a different kind of way.

Of course, watching films at the cinema for me becomes re-inscribed into patterns of conceptual and intellectual work, the thinking about cultural production that makes up this blog and, ultimately, articles and books published in more traditional forms. In parallel fashion, Jonathan Beller’s brilliant book, The Cinematic Mode of Production (2006) analyses how spectatorship itself becomes subject to regimes of capitalist exploitation and domination, another means by which capital can extract value and labour from what has previously been experienced as ‘free’ time. Not that I lament my inability to ‘enjoy’ films without ‘thinking’ about them: I’m not sure I can do that about anything any more, and the gains make up for any ‘innocence’ lost. And I do enjoy them, have fun; I enjoyed Paddington, at the same time as it made me think.

I’ve never read a Paddington book, though for someone of my generation, the paper-like animation of the FilmFair series that began its run in 1975 is the definitive bear. (I remember Isobel, very small, wrinkling up her nose in imitation of the stop-motion Paddington eating a marmalade sandwich.) With Michael Hordern’s voice-over, there’s something comfortingly domestic about the 1970s animated Paddington. The exteriors (of Paddington station, of the Underground) seem less roomy than the inside of no.32, where the Browns live. It’s also very definitely English, inhabiting a cosy post-war world of ticket inspectors, irascible neighbours and grand department stores, where Paddington’s winning bear-ness allows him to escape unscathed from the chaos that he inevitably and accidentally causes. In some ways, it’s a stuffy, white, bourgeois world, inhabited by a very bourgeois Brown family, whose live-in housekeeper, Mrs Bird, provides a bit of lower-class bottom. (‘She knows everything,’ says daughter Judy Brown to Paddington in the second episode of the animated series.)

The film of Paddington is located in a very different kind of London. Sure, there are nods to indexical landmarks (the London Eye, the Natural History Museum), journeys encompassing black cabs and the new open-back Routemaster buses, but this is a London identified most overtly with Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, and in particular with a multi-racial, multi-cultural sensibility most clearly presented in the calypso band that Paddington wanders past (in a running joke about diegetic and extra-diegetic sound) several times in the film, whose songs celebrate that all kinds of people, from all over the world, can call themselves Londoners. Paddington is then a London film, but of a particular kind: a utopia of accepted difference, a family where a bear from Darkest Peru can find himself at home, a post-imperial world-city in which the legacies of colonialism are negotiated, both positively and negatively.

Offsetting the calypso band, and Paddington’s trajectory from newly-arrived migrant, ignored by the bustling commuter crowds at Paddington, to Londoner, is the role played by Nicole Kidman. As Millicent, the amoral taxidermist working for the Natural History Museum, Kidman does a nice turn as a Cruella-style villain, blonde-bobbed and buttoned-up. Her pursuit of Paddington is motivated by a backstory in which her father, the geographer Montgomery Clyde, ‘discovered’ Paddington’s Uncle and Aunt living in Peru, and in effect taught them English (as well as a love of marmalade); upon returning to London, the Guild of Geographers refuses to accept Clyde’s evidence of talking bears with a ‘specimen’ (i.e. a dead bear). When Clyde refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the bears, he is expelled from the Guild and spends the rest of his life running a petting zoo. Millicent mis-reads this gesture as a failure to complete the ‘mission’, and her desire to kill and mount Paddington is a perverse desire to redeem her father in some way; what Millicent cannot see is the ethical weight of her father’s choice. In effect, through Millicent, the film of Paddington offers a critique of the implication of British science, and in particular scientific institutions such as the Natural History Museum, with Imperialism.  

Museums have long fascinated me. Back when I wrote about Literature and Science in a book, I read Pyenson and Sheets-Pyenson’s Servants of Nature about the development of scientific institutions in the 19th century, and how they acted as centripetal machines of knowledge-gathering, whereby the Imperial ‘margins’ (possessions) were the sites of ‘exploration’ and observation but where the collation, systematisation and organisation of that knowledge could only take place at the Imperial centre, London. Tony Bennett, in a brilliant article called ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, also discussed (in Foucauldian terms) how the very spaces of museums themselves, in developing from ‘cabinets of curiosity’ (spectacular displays of exotic objects and fauna) to large halls ordered by means of taxonomy or chronology, also served as a disciplinary mechanism for the regulation of crowd behaviour. Crowds, Bennett argued, came to see the objects on display but also to watch the crowd itself, a kind of auto-spectatorship. By turning the crowd’s gaze back upon itself, the museum manages and regulates behaviour to move in orderly fashion: through signage, maps, queues. Museums are not neutral spaces.

Museums are time machines, of course, allowing us to ‘see’ time from the Paleolithic to the present in ordered displays. (It is no coincidence that H.G. Wells, in The Time Machine, has the Traveller visit the Palace of Green Porcelain in the far future, situated in South Kensington.) More recently, museums have a curious connection to masculinity and fatherhood. As I’ve just suggested, in Paddington, Millicent’s own damaged relationship with her father is the motive cause behind her pursuit of the young bear. In the Night at the Museum films (a third is now on release), Ben Stiller plays a divorced father whose relationship with his young son is made difficult by his own economic failure (particularly in comparison with his ex-wife’s new partner, a bond trader). The magical events in the American Museum of Natural History enable father and son to re-establish a close bond.

The same happens in Paddington. Mr Brown, seen by his son and daughter as ‘boring and annoying’, is the last to accept Paddington, and actively seeks to avoid having to deal with the bear (or, by implication, the failures in his relationships with his wife and children). Mr Brown works in risk management, an index of his own limitation as father and as ‘Londoner’: but rather than this being a version of the neglectful go-getting Father familiar from Peter Banning in Hook to Lord Business in The Lego Movie, Paddington rather nicely reveals that it is Mr Brown’s own fear for his family’s well-being that emotionally constrains him. It is not that Mr Brown is a bad father, having lost touch with his ‘inner child’; rather, it is the very condition of fatherhood itself which produces his deficiencies, the felt need to enact a version of masculinity which is safe, boring and at the same time both over-solicitous and emotionally neglectful. If the Brown family ‘need’ Paddington, then Mr Brown needs him most of all, in opening out the family to accident, to chaos, to life, once more. It is in the Natural History Museum, where the Browns go en famille to rescue the young bear from Millicent, that Mr Brown recovers a form of ‘heroic’ fatherhood, desirable to his wife and admirable to his children.

In such benighted times when Nigel Farage can be declared ‘The Times Briton of the Year’, Paddington offers a kind of utopian message in its timeless dream of a London open to all. (The time-frames of the Clyde expedition seem very odd. Paddington is clearly set in the present day, and Millicent is a woman in her 40s. Her father’s expedition to Peru seems to take place in the 1940s or 1950s, with caricature Guildsmen sporting Victorian-era whiskers; Millicent stands and watches her father’s debarring from the Guild at age 7 or 8. If at a push, this was 40 years ago (considering Kidman’s age and looks), then this makes Montgomery Clyde’s return to London the mid-1970s, rather than the 1940s. Either some decades have got lost, or Millicent looks very good at age 75 or so. Time machines indeed.) Paddington’s message is one of acceptance of the other, a celebration of multiplicity and a refusal that white, bourgeois Englishness is all there is to a city like London. Paddington is first and foremost a migrant, and Paddington a celebration of the positive effects of migration. (In a very small aside, the film suggests that Mr Gruber, the antiques-shop owner, arrived in London via the kindertransport trains.) Closed minds and closed hearts, locked doors and risk-averse souls, the film asserts, are no proper form of family or communal life. 

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